Stealthy reduction woes: Is there ignorance about how much reformulation is happening?

By Nathan Gray

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Stealthy reduction woes: Is there ignorance about how much reformulation is happening?

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'Stealth health' is fast becoming a buzzword in the food industry. But does the world 'stealth' imply something inherently negative, and is the quiet reformulation strategy painting an unfair or unrealistic picture of foods?

To very little fanfare, and with the threat of strong consumer backlash, many food manufacturers have chosen to hide away their efforts to reduce the levels of salt, fat, sugar and calories in their products.

This idea of ‘stealthy reduction’ has gained a lot of traction (and use) within the industry. However, is the term ‘stealthy’ itself attracting negative conotations where there needn’t be?

“At present, the use of the word “stealth” is limited to specialists in the food industry and the health world, and to specialist media,”​ noted Professor Jack Winkler. “But that will not last long. Sooner or later, the phrase is going to leak out into the general media and hence into wider public circulation, including to the many food advocacy groups.”

“When that happens, it does not take much imagination to see how it will be interpreted and used,”​ he warned.

Speaking with FoodNavigator, the food policy expert noted that he raises the issues surrounding the use of the word ‘stealth’ at any time it is used in a conference or in a publication – and in general, people agree.

“Because of the rhyme, and the feel of it, I think it has slipped in to use without people really thinking of the implications,”​ he said. “Once the implications are pointed out to them, they agree."

Yet use of the term ‘stealthy’ continues in some areas.

“It's not my job to propose new words; common usage will win out in the end. But please, let's find something better than stealth."

Secret reformulation: the good and the bad

While Winkler is a supporter of quiet reformulation which does not draw too consumer attention to alterations in products (for fear of backlashes such as those seen with Pepsi Edge, or Campbell;’s soup), he noted that there can also be serious downsides to ‘stealth’ reformulation, no matter what it is called.

One important implication of such ‘stealth’ (or quiet) reformulation, is that nobody knows how much reformulation is really going on, Winkler explained.

Whether it is an anti-industry pressure group, an industry-led federation or organisation, or even a rival firm - nobody really knows how much reformulation is going on inside other firms and the wider industry, he said.

“It's commercially confidential information,”​ he said. “Everybody is doing it, but they are doing it quietly. And as a result there is ignorance, both within the industry and within public health world on how much is actually happening."

Why not shout about it?

Winkler reiterated that there are a whole host of example which show how 'shouting about' reformulation can turn consumers away from products.

The main problem, he noted is that reformulation is never seen as improving a formula for good, more as losing the bad.

"Whenever you announce that you have reformulated a product, the first thing people ask is what was wrong with the old one,"​ said the policy expert. "It's never seen as an improvement, or healthier, or tastier."

"I think a lot of people have had that experience where sales begin to fall, or you get a customer reaction to something. So, you're better to just keep quiet about it."

The issue is providing industry with a real headache, he added: "If they reformulate and tell everybody about it, that affects sales. But if they reformulate and don't tell, then nobody knows about it, and they can come under scrutiny and pressure from consumers and campaign groups.”

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